The speech by German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, a member of the Green Party, on the situation in the Middle East on November 1 struck a chord. With an infallible clarity that in Europe could probably only come from Germany, he insisted both on the right of the Palestinians to have their own state and on Israel’s right to defend its security. He criticised the ambivalence of some sections of public opinion towards Hamas and explained why Germany and Europe, if they want to remain true to the basis of their political legitimacy, must not give in in the fight against anti-Semitism under any circumstances and for no “humanitarian” reason. K. introduces the translation of his speech into French with a short text by Julia Christ and Danny Trom explaining its significance in the confusion of current political discourse.
The political sense of Europe
The events of October 7 literally tore apart the global society composed of the nations of the world, as well as international public opinion. Polarization between entities that commentators have rather summarily named was immediate: the North versus the South, the West versus the Arab countries and, more generally, the countries of the so-called “emerging” world. Regardless of the accuracy of the denominations, the description of reactions in terms of blocks distributed on the world map is right: no country in the world lived through October 7 in indifference. When it comes to Israel and the Jews, the propensity for globalization is remarkable, unfolding at dizzying speed and associated with an incomparable coefficient of passion.
Nothing here is surprising, but the phenomenon deserves to be highlighted so that we don’t become accustomed to it as if it was normal.
Nonetheless, there’s nothing symmetrical about the opposition between the two camps. Applauding the crime, refusing to identify it for what it is, namely a mass crime, relativizing it, trying to diminish its significance by “contextualizing” it or inscribing it in a long history of acts of legitimate resistance – this reaction is not opposed to a bloc that would wish the worst for the Palestinians, but to those who generally support a two-state solution, and support Israel in its right to self-defense, while urging it to spare the civilian population of Gaza. And nothing could conceal this fundamental asymmetry between a camp that rejoices in civilian deaths, or at least considers their slaughter legitimate in a war of decolonization, and a camp that condemns every civilian death on principle. Nothing, and certainly not the now well-rehearsed attempts to cover up the exterminating passion expressed on October 7 by indiscriminately accusing Israel and the Jews of planning genocide, or even of committing it already, sometimes suggesting, and often asserting, that these Israelis, these Jews, are in fact the true heirs of the Nazis ; that Israel is in no way a refuge founded after the genocide of European Jewry, but rather the embodiment of the state that continues Germany’s genocidal policy in Palestine.
This narrative is not new either, but it has acquired a hitherto unequalled power in today’s polarization.
So it is said that there are two blocs, but in the West, they are not so clearly separated, either within the governments of the countries concerned, or in their civil societies. Words cross borders, which have become rapidly porous since the war on Gaza has claimed an increasingly unbearable number of civilian victims. “Genocide” becomes the word many are tempted to use; “colonialism” is spoken of without distinguishing between the State of Israel within its 1948 borders and the situation in the occupied territories; the “right to resistance” is asserted without differentiating between the Palestinians of the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. It seems that the intellectual elite of the “Occident”, in tune with what is happening on the streets, has massively indulged in this rhetoric, undermining the task of government officials, who must always find the right words to express their dismay at the consequences, however foreseeable, of the Israeli intervention in Gaza.
Against this backdrop of legitimate fears that the West is teetering on the brink of collapse, German Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Industry Robert Habeck took action with a speech broadcast via video message on Thursday, November 2. A member of the German Greens, and thus one of the flagships of Europe’s progressive left, he clarified the position to be taken by Germany. This alone would justify the publication of his text as a historical document.
But his speech is much more than that. His voice as a German progressive speaking from the heart of Europe has the merit of reminding all Europeans of the political project on which the post-war period was founded, and from which the Europe we still live in today emerged.
This Europe, let’s be clear, is not founded on German guilt – as some people like to say, calling on Germans to “trade their guilt for the freedom of Palestine”, in short, calling on them to renounce their support for Israel, which is believed to be nurtured exclusively by this sentiment. But it is built on the historical responsibility of Germany, and with it of all the states of Europe, to approach the question of national and transnational integration in a completely new way after the Shoah. Europe, in fact, is a post-Shoah political construction. What enabled it to rise again as a political player after 1945 was a reflexive return to itself and its history, to what it understands by democracy, citizenship, state sovereignty and above all by national society – the internal structure of political societies, the bonds of solidarity that exist and those to be produced.
In this concert of European nations, Germany was certainly the country that worked hardest to translate this European reflection into institutions capable of constraining sovereign states in the event of violation of the fundamental rights of the populations present on their territories. Generally speaking, this is what we retain of the German-inspired European project: a displacement of national sovereignty towards transnational entities capable of curbing the majority sovereign “people” when it comes to attacking minorities within its midst. In other words, what we generally retain of Germany’s imprint on Europe is a relativization of the sovereign politics of nation-states, tending towards outright political disempowerment.
By bringing up another, concrete dimension of Europe’s post-Shoah character, Robert Habeck’s statement reminds us that there are indeed politics, a well-defined politics, carried out from Germany. This politics does not end with the verbal affirmation that “this” will never happen again. But it does consist in building a Europe and a world in which Jews must always be safe. And to this world belongs the State of Israel, a potential safe haven for every Jew in the world – a state which must therefore also always be safe. It is in this precise sense that Robert Habeck’s words should be understood: that the Jews and the State of Israel are embedded in Germany’s raison d’état, and that this should apply to the whole of Europe if it is to remain true to its post-war configuration.
Obviously, this does not mean that other populations can be endangered, threatened, discriminated against or persecuted with impunity. But it does mean that in all circumstances, Jews must be safe, and that their protection cannot be compromised. A weak basis for new politics, one might say. And it’s true that it’s a political project far less sublime in its surface than the abstract reminder of the human rights of man. It’s also less likely to mobilize the masses. But it is on this project that Europe was founded, and reading the German Vice-Chancellor, one understands the extent of its consequences in terms of the integration of the political societies that compose it. His speech, which, with a simplicity and acuity that one would like to find on the lips of other government leaders, demonstrates how Europe is a post-Shoah political project, and what this implies in terms of concrete politics for the defense of our democracies. It therefore deserves our full attention.— Julia Christ et Danny Trom
Speech by German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck on Israel and antisemitism (November 1, 2023)
“Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel took place almost four weeks ago now. A lot has happened since then. Not only politically, but especially for the people. So many people’s lives are now consumed by fear and suffering. Public debate since the attack has been heated, sometimes muddled.
Too much seems to me to have been mixed up too quickly. The phrase, “Israel’s security is part of Germany’s raison d’état” has never been an empty phrase, and it must not become one. It means that Israel’s security is essential for us as a country. This special relationship with Israel stems from our historical responsibility.
It was the generation of my grandparents that wanted to exterminate Jewish life in Germany and Europe. After the Holocaust, the founding of Israel was the promise of protection to the Jews — and Germany is compelled to help ensure that this promise can be fulfilled. This is a historical foundation of our republic.
Our historical responsibility also means that Jews must be able to live freely and safely in Germany. That they never again have to be afraid to openly show their religion and their culture. But it is precisely this fear that is back.
I recently met with members of the Jewish community in Frankfurt. In the intense, painful talk we had the community representatives told me that their children are afraid to go to school, that they no longer go to sports clubs, that they leave their necklaces with the Star of David at home on the advice of their parents. Today, here in Germany. Almost 80 years after the Holocaust.
They told us that they no longer dare to get into a taxi, that they no longer put return addresses on letters to protect their recipients. Today, here in Germany. Almost 80 years after the Holocaust.
And a Jewish friend told me about his fear, his sheer despair, his feeling of loneliness. The Jewish communities warn their members to avoid certain places — for their own safety. And this is the reality here today, in Germany, almost 80 years after the Holocaust.
Antisemitism is being seen at demonstrations, in statements, in attacks on Jewish shops, in threats. While large waves of solidarity are shown when there are racist attacks for example, solidarity quickly becomes fragile when it comes to Israel. People say that the context is complex. But contextualization must not lead to relativization.
It is true, that in our debate culture, there is often too much shock and outrage. But here, we cannot be outraged enough. What is needed now is clarity, not a blur. And to be clear: antisemitism is not to be tolerated in any form — whatsoever.
The scale of the Islamist demonstrations in Berlin and other cities in Germany is unacceptable and needs a tough political response. This is also needed from the Muslim associations. Some have clearly distanced themselves from the actions of Hamas and from antisemitism, and have sought dialogue.
But not all of them — some have been too hesitant to do so, and it’s been too few overall. Muslims living here are entitled to protection from right-wing extremist violence — and rightly so. When they are attacked, their right to protection must be honoured and they must also honour this right of the Jews now that the Jews have been attacked.
They must clearly distance themselves from antisemitism so as not to undermine their own right to tolerance. There is no place for religious intolerance in Germany. Whoever lives here does so according to the rules of this country. And whoever comes here must know that this is how it is and that this will be enforced.
Our constitution provides protection and bestows rights, but it also imposes obligations that must be fulfilled by all. You cannot separate the two. Tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance here. This is the core of our coexistence in the Federal Republic of Germany.
This means that burning Israeli flags is a criminal offence, as is praising Hamas terror. Any German citizen who does this will have to answer for such offences in court; those who are not German citizens will also risk their residency status. Anyone who does not yet have a residence permit will have provided a reason to be deported.
Islamist antisemitism, however, should not blind us to the fact that we also have entrenched antisemitism in Germany. The only difference is that the right-wing extremists are currently holding back, for purely tactical reasons, in order to be able to agitate against Muslims.
Revisiting the Second World War, the Nazi regime as a “minor incident” is not only relativizing the Holocaust, it is a slap in the face of the victims and survivors. The Second World War was a war of extermination against Jews; for the Nazi regime, the annihilation of European Jewry was always the main goal.
And because there are many Putin admirers among the right-wing extremists, let me say this: Putin has his picture taken with representatives of Hamas and the Iranian government and deplores the civilian victims in Gaza whilst at the same time creating civilian victims in Ukraine. And his friends in Germany are certainly not friends of the Jews.
But I am also concerned about the antisemitism in parts of the political left, and sadly among young activists as well. Anti-colonialism must not lead to antisemitism. In this respect this part of the political left should review its arguments and distrust the big resistance narrative.
The “both sides” argument is misleading here. Hamas is a murderous terrorist group fighting for the annihilation of the state of Israel and the death of all Jews. The clarity with which the German section of Fridays for Future, for example, has stated this, and the fact it has done so in contrast to its international friends, is more than respectable.
When I was in Turkey recently, it was thrown into my teeth that pro-Palestinian demonstrations are banned in Germany. And that Germany must also apply its humanitarian demands to the people in Gaza. I made it clear that criticism of Israel is of course allowed here. That it is not banned for people to stand up for the rights of Palestinians and also their right to their own state.
But calling for violence against Jews or celebrating violence against Jews is prohibited — and rightly so!
Yes, life in Gaza is life in poverty without prospects for the future. Yes, the settler movement in the West Bank is fomenting discord and robs Palestinians of hope and rights and, increasingly, lives. And the suffering of the civilian population now at war is a fact, a terrible fact. Every dead child is one dead child too many.
I, too, call for humanitarian supplies, and am committed to ensuring that water, medicines and relief supplies are delivered to Gaza, and that the refugees are protected.
Together with our American friends, we are making is clear to Israel time and again that the protection of the civilian population is paramount. The death and suffering that is now engulfing the people of Gaza is terrible. To say this is as necessary as it is legitimate.
Systematic violence against Jews, however, can still not be legitimized by this. Antisemitism cannot be justified by this. Of course, Israel must abide by international law and international standards. But the difference is this: would someone ever frame such expectations of Hamas? And because I was recently confronted abroad with how the attack on Israel on the seventh of October was downplayed as — quote — an “unfortunate incident,” and even the facts were called into question, let me remind you here once again: it was Hamas, who cruelly murdered children, parents and grandparents in their homes. Whose fighters mutilated corpses, kidnapped people and laughingly exposed them to public humiliation.
These are accounts of sheer horror — and yet Hamas is hailed as a freedom movement? This is a reversal of the facts, which we cannot allow to stand. And this brings me to the last point: the attack on Israel took place in a phase of rapprochement between several Muslim states and Israel. There are the Abraham Accords between Israel and Muslim countries of the region. Jordan and Israel are working together on a major drinking water project. Saudi Arabia was on the way to normalizing its relations with Israel.
But peaceful coexistence of Israel and its neighbours, of Jews and Muslims, and the prospect of a two-state solution — are not what Hamas and its supporters, especially the Iranian government, want. They want to destroy it. Those who have not given up hope for peace in the region, those who believe in the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and a real perspective — as we do — must now differentiate in these difficult weeks. And differentiating means to acknowledge that the murderous acts of Hamas are intended to prevent peace.
Hamas does not want reconciliation with Israel, but the extermination of Israel. And this is why it is pivotal to make it clear that Israel’s right to exist must not be relativized. Israel’s security is our obligation. Germany knows this.”